This year, the IRS is cautioning taxpayers to be extra vigilant because of a 60 percent increase in email phishing scams over the past year. This is particularly disheartening, since it comes on the heels of a steady decline in phishing scams over the previous three years.
Typically, an email phishing scam will appear to be from the IRS. Once the victim has opened the email, the scammer will use one of several methods to get at the victim's personal information, including their financial data, tax details, usernames and passwords. They will then use this information to steal the victim's identity, empty their accounts or file taxes in the victim's name and then make off with their refund.
Scammers have several means for fooling victims into handing over their sensitive information. The most popular tax-related phishing scams include the following:
1. Tax transcript scams. In these scams, victims are conned into opening emails appearing to be from the IRS with important information about their taxes. Unfortunately, these emails are bogus and contain malware.
2. Threatening emails. Also appearing to be from the IRS, these phony emails will have subject lines like "IRS Important Notice" and will demand immediate payment for unpaid back taxes. When the victim clicks on the embedded link, their device will be infected with malware.
3. Refund rebound. In this scam, a crook posing as an IRS agent will email a taxpayer and claim the taxpayer was erroneously awarded too large a tax refund. The scammer will demand the immediate return of some of the money via prepaid debit card or wire transfer. Of course, there was no mistake with the victim's tax refund and any money the victim forwards will be used to line the scammer's pockets.
4. Phony phone call. In this highly prevalent scam, a caller spoofs the IRS's toll-free number and calls a victim, claiming they owe thousands of dollars in back taxes. Those taxes, they are told, must be paid immediately under threat of arrest, deportation or driver's-license suspension. Obviously, this too is a fraud and the victim is completely innocent.
If you're targeted
When targeted by any scam, it's crucial to not engage with the scammer. If your Caller ID announces that the IRS is on the phone, don't pick up! Even answering the call to tell the scammer to get lost can be enough to mark you as an easy target for future scams. If you accidentally picked up the phone, hang up as quickly as possible.
Similarly, suspicious-looking emails about tax information should not be opened. Mark any bogus tax-related emails that land in your inbox as spam to keep the scammers from trying again.
If you're targeted by a tax scam, report the incident to help the authorities crack down on these crooks. Forward suspicious tax-related emails to email@example.com. You can also alert the Federal Trade Commission at FTC.gov.
Protect yourself from tax scams
Stay one step ahead of scammers this tax season by being proactive. Protect yourself with these steps:
• File early in the season so scammers have less time to steal your identity, file on your behalf and collect your refund.
• Use the strongest security settings for your computer and update them whenever possible.
• Use unique and strong passwords for your accounts and credit or debit cards.
• Choose two-step authentication when conducting financial transactions online.
Remember, the IRS will never:
• Call about taxes owed without having first sent you a bill via snail mail.
• Call to demand immediate payment over the phone.
• Threaten to have you arrested or deported for failing to pay your taxes.
• Require you to use a specific payment method for your taxes.
• Ask you to share sensitive information, like a debit card number or checking account number, over the phone.
Be alert and be careful this tax season and those scammers won't stand a chance!
Have you ever been targeted by a tax scam? Share your experience with us in the comments.